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SafeSport: Olympic sports sex abuse, misconduct claims rise sharply in 2019

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DENVER (AP) — The U.S. Center for SafeSport is fielding 55 percent more reports of sex abuse and other misconduct in 2019 than it did last year, leading to an increasingly urgent debate over who should provide the lion’s share of money to an organization struggling to manage its caseload.

This week, the 2 ½-year-old center, tasked with investigating sex-abuse claims in Olympic sports, received a $1.3 million infusion from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee that brings the USOPC’s overall contribution to $7.4 million in 2019.

The country’s national governing bodies, which oversee the individual Olympic sports, have contributed $2.05 million for this year, and including a small government grant and other donations, the center will operate on $10.5 million in 2019.

Officials at the center worry that’s an untenable amount for an organization that is now receiving an average of 239 reports a month, compared to 154 during a typical month last year.

Out of those, the SafeSport Center has 1,290 open cases, with another 2,237 that have been closed. It has 18 investigators and lawyers (with four vacancies) on a staff of 37 (with six vacancies) to handle them. The center projects it will need to double its staff next year and triple it by 2023 to keep up with the work.

The stark numbers lend urgency to a fight over who should fund the center in the long term. The USOPC, which founded the center, is pushing the federal government to provide more than what it currently allots — a $2.2 million grant spread over three years, none of which can be used for investigations.

“I think it’s an ‘And’ question, not an ‘Or’ question,” said USOCP CEO Sarah Hirshland, who has been lobbying lawmakers to provide government money to help.

A pair of senators, meanwhile, have proposed a bill that, in addition to adding oversight to the Olympic movement, would compel the USOPC and NGBs to essentially double what they provide now, increasing the grants to a total of $20 million a year.

Nearly half of the 50 NGBs operate on annual budgets of $3 million or less, and though each NGB pays according to its size and, in extreme cases, the number of reports its sport has referred to the center, there is concern that neither the NGBs nor the USOPC can absorb big increases in their SafeSport budgets.

“The $20 million proposal would absolutely force us to make some difficult choices,” Hirshland said.

The USOPC brought in around $323 million in revenue in 2018 up from $183 million in ’17; the federation’s numbers spike in Olympic years and go down during non-Olympic years. It uses the money to support athletes in a number of ways — including training, insurance, prize money for winners of major events and NGB funding.

Last year, administrative costs rose to more than 11 percent of total spending ($31.2 million) because of payments to two law firms that did work involving the sex-abuse scandal and a severance to former CEO Scott Blackmun.

Hirshland and other leaders are pointing to the model that funds the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency; USADA received about $9.5 million of its $21 million in 2018 revenue from government, another $5.1 million from the USOPC and $6.7 million from “testing and other services,” according to its annual report.

“I think that makes sense, because we’re addressing societal issue, and government’s authority to protect and serve fits in really well in that area,” said Max Cobb, the CEO of U.S. Biathlon, who heads up the NGB Council.

But the red tape the center had to go through to receive the $2.2 million, combined with the restrictions put on the money and uncertainty over the Congressional appropriations process, gives pause to the new center’s CEO, Ju’Riese Colon, about relying too heavily on government funding.

“The USOPC and the NGBs must be invested in changing their sport culture, which means they must invest in the Center,” Colon said, while adding that she’s not against receiving money from the government, as well. “While I appreciate people connecting us (to USADA) because we’re certainly similar, the job and scope is so different, and I think the funding is going to have to be a lot different.”

When he, along with Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, introduced the bill that calls for $20 million, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, called it a more direct and dependable pathway for the center to receive the money than relying on government.

“Having a secure and stable source of funding is very important. It fortifies the independence and integrity” of the center, Blumenthal said.

Recently, the House passed a spending bill that included $2.5 million for the SafeSport Center. The Senate is expected to consider that bill next week.

Even if that money gets approved, the center will need more to keep up with its caseload.

Around the time it opened in March 2017, the center received an average of 31 reports a month. That number exploded in the beginning of 2018, when Larry Nassar’s victims spoke up during his sentencing hearing for sex crimes. By last fall, with the #MeToo movement in full swing and Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing making headlines, the number spiked again.

It’s grown even more in 2019, with each sex-related headline triggering more calls.

Meanwhile, an independent consultant hired by the center projects the number of calls will continue to increase until it caps at around 8,000 a year — an average of 667 a month.

Colon says many of the reports could become less complicated as the knowledge from center’s education programs seeps into sports communities and issues are reported before they become overly complicated.

About one-fifth of the center’s workforce (eight employees) is devoted to education-and-outreach programs to serve up to 18 million members of national governing bodies across the country. So far, the center has trained about 800,000 of those people.

The independent consultant suggested to Colon that, given the workload, the center could use $35 million in 2020. But the center has more modest hopes — hoping to increase USOPC and NGB donations to bring next year’s budget to $16 million.

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Emily Sweeney posts fastest time in qualifier for luge World Cup opener

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World championship bronze medalist Emily Sweeney placed first in the Nations Cup luge race Friday in Innsbruck, Austria, qualifying with ease for the first World Cup event of the season.

Twelve women, including fellow American Summer Britcher, were seeded directly into the World Cup race. Sweeney, Brittney Arndt and Ashley Farquharson all qualified from the Nations Cup race. Britcher has finished third in the overall World Cup standings for two straight years and is a contender in a wide-open year with seven-time defending champion Natalie Geisenberger taking a year off while pregnant.

MORE: Geisenberg will not race in 2019-20

In the men’s competition, Jonny Gustafson and Olympic silver medalist Chris Mazdzer finished third and fifth in the Nations Cup race to advance. Tucker West claimed the second-to-last qualifying spot to get all three U.S. sliders in Sunday’s World Cup race.

Mazdzer and Jayson Terdiman qualified for the doubles competition, ensuring all eight U.S. sliders will see the weekend races.

OlympicChannel.com will have live streaming this weekend (all times ET):

  • Women: Saturday, 4:15 a.m. and 5:40 a.m.
  • Doubles: Saturday, 7:05 a.m. and 8:25 a.m.
  • Men: Sunday, 4 a.m. and 5:35 a.m.
  • Team relay: Sunday, 7:40 a.m.

Highlights will be on television at the following times:

  • Saturday: Olympic Channel, 5:30 p.m.
  • Sunday, Olympic Channel, 5:30 p.m.
  • Sunday: NBCSN, 4:30 p.m.

Next weekend, the World Cup series heads to Lake Placid, N.Y.

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Russian track and field federation faces expulsion threat over new doping allegations

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MOSCOW (AP) — The governing body for track and field will consider expelling Russia from membership following new charges that senior officials faked medical records.

Russia has been suspended by World Athletics, formerly known as the IAAF, over widespread doping since 2015. There will be a review of whether vetted Russians should still be allowed to compete in international events as neutrals.

“We need to deal with renegade factions like this,” World Athletics president Sebastian Coe said Friday in Monaco.

World Athletics has frozen talks about lifting the long-running suspension and asked its Russia task force for recommendations on expelling the country’s track federation.

“It’s not symbolic,” said Coe, who said the charges and suspensions against Russian officials were so wide-ranging that they left the task force with almost no one left to talk to.

One route could be to close the Russian track federation and set up a new national governing body. Russia’s sports minister said he had referred the federation to a commission which oversees such matters.

Federation president Dmitry Shlyakhtin and four other senior officials are accused of obstructing the investigation into 2017 world championship silver medalist Danil Lysenko, who was accused last year of failing to make himself available for drug testing.

Lysenko allegedly provided fake medical documents as an alibi with help from the officials. He and his coach have also been suspended by the Athletics Integrity Unit pending full disciplinary hearings.

Also Friday, the three-time world high jump champion Mariya Lasitskene assailed Russian track leaders after they were charged Thursday, saying they have made a “doping nightmare” even worse.

Lasitskene called for swift and radical reforms, and the removal of officials appointed by Shlyakhtin.

Shlyakhtin took office shortly after the federation was suspended from international competition for widespread doping. The suspension remains in place four years later.

“The new team, whose task was to take us out of this doping nightmare, has turned out no better than the old one. And in some ways worse,” Lasitskene wrote on Instagram. “Shlyakhtin and his team must quit their posts immediately and never come back. And I will make sure this happens.”

Lasitskene has won two of her three world titles as a neutral athlete as a result of Russia’s suspension, which also caused her to miss the 2016 Olympics.

“Our track and field is in its death throes and we can’t procrastinate anymore,” she wrote. “We’ve lost four years already. Clean athletes are still defenseless and not sure they’ll be able to compete tomorrow.”

Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov expressed concern about the “emergency situation” and referred the federation to a ministry commission which could officially withdraw its government recognition.

“The future fate of the track and field federation will be examined,” Kolobkov said Friday in a video statement. “For us now, the main thing is that the training process isn’t interrupted. That means all of the athletes will get the help they need to continue the training and competition process.”

Earlier, the Kremlin said the charges against Shlyakhtin and others won’t derail the country’s preparations to compete in next year’s Olympics.

“Undoubtedly, this (situation) requires attention from the sports authorities, and I’m sure they’re dealing with it,” said Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin. “But I don’t see a direct connection with Russia’s participation in the Olympics here.”

With Shlyakhtin suspended, the federation is set to select an interim president at a board meeting on Saturday.

Russia is also facing a World Anti-Doping Agency ruling next month on whether it manipulated data from a lab in Moscow.

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